Revolutionary Movements and Leadership
"Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to
lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out if I could;
for if you could be lead out, you could be led back again. I
would have you make up your minds there is nothing that you
cannot do for yourselves."
--Eugene Victor Debs - December 18, 1905
By Charles Sullivan
As a writer, I get many responses to my articles across a wide
spectrum of ideologies, from all over the world. This is one of
the things that make writing interesting to me—engaging people
and hearing their ideas about things that matter. Almost
invariably people ask me what they can do, or who is going to
lead the next great social justice movement. What follows is my
response to those inquiries. Bear in mind that it is hastily
crafted and intended as a rough outline—a starting point. I will
leave it to others more capable than me to build upon the
foundation I have laid; or if necessary to start anew.
As the result of our hurried lifestyle, we live in a relatively
intellectually shallow culture that has been softened by the
idea of instant gratification. When we are sick we take a pill
with the expectation that it will quickly make our malady
disappear. We rarely consider the underlying causes of illness
and disease. Our meals are rarely savored: they are prepared
quickly and eaten in haste. Everything we do is predicated upon
speed. This, I believe, has led to a kind of intellectual
laziness that is prevalent among Americans, more than anywhere
else in the world. We want quick fixes, easy answers—instant
gratification. We want someone to lead us and tell us what to
do, in essence relieving us of the burden of personal
responsibility we know is ours.
Let us come to understand, however, that the complex problems
facing not only America, but also the world, have no simple or
easy solutions. If solutions exist—not all problems can be
solved by mortal minds—these issues will require deep thought
and long and persistent effort on the part of many. If we are
serious about the business of revolution we must not only be
committed to meaningful change, we must be in it for the long
haul. Unfortunately, change often occurs at glacial speed, not
at the velocity of light, as we might hope. Even when change
appears to happen very quickly, it only appears that way after a
long hard struggle on the part of many to reach critical mass.
When critical mass is reached, and we rarely know exactly where
we are in relation to it, then things happen quickly and
dramatically. But it is a long and difficult process that leads
up to critical mass.
It is expecting too much of anyone to lead a revolution.
Revolutions succeed only by the force of many, acting in unison
toward a common goal, not by the leadership of a few. If they
are to succeed, movements must be bigger than the leadership
that organizes them. They must be essentially self-organizing.
Leaders can be assassinated, movements cannot. Effective
national and global movements are the result of the efforts of
millions upon millions of individuals united in common belief,
and common effort. They are the result of many single acts added
together that move the whole toward a common goal. These acts
have a cumulative and profound impact when carried out day after
day, month after month, year after year. This is when they
acquire the force of revolutionary change for the betterment of
Centralized power is concentrated power that is prone to
corruption and betrayal. Decentralized, loosely organized
movements disperse power throughout the entirety of the movement
or cause. It places power equally into the hands of all, rather
than a few. This is the kind of movement that, it seems to me,
is most likely to succeed. It is the kind of movement in which,
paradoxically, everyone is a leader, and no one is a leader.
This kind of organization is the kind that most troubles
authority, the status quo, because they do not know how to
attack it. Its leadership is at once everywhere and nowhere. How
does one assassinate an entire movement without engaging in
There are few tried and true methods to follow. Mostly these are
uncharted waters where we venture. However, there is one
absolute certainty—we must massively organize on a global scale
across a broad spectrum of interrelated concerns and issues.
There is no other place to start than at the beginning. This
means we must start from where we are—at home and in our
respective communities. We might begin by creating decentralized
but loosely organized networks of local activists, who meet
regularly at someone’s home, or a local library, perhaps, to
discuss matters of importance to them; who work both
individually and in unison on the issues that concern them.
Partnerships are formed and alliances made, as we educate
ourselves and decide how to solve local problems.
Some members of this group might work on organizing and
democratizing the work place; others might address homelessness
and affordable housing. Another group might work to put their
own people on school boards, or run candidates for county
commissioner. Still others might work on preserving wild forests
or monitoring the biological health of local streams and rivers.
There are any number of issues to choose from. It requires no
more than a single person to begin working on them. The work can
begin immediately and its impact can be felt at once. Of course,
the more people involved the better. The idea is to find common
ground and to make connections based upon commonality.
Meanwhile, broader networks begin to branch out from the local
network into the surrounding county, then to the state level.
From the state level they broaden their scope to the National
level. From there the next step is the global level. All of
these citizen activists will be in constant communication with
each other, coordinating their efforts and broadening membership
in the group. The network continuously branches out in
concentric circles, building bridges across platforms and
ideologies as it proceeds, until it circumnavigates the globe
and joins hands with the people of every nation. There is no
fast way to accomplish this. It requires time and persistent
effort. This is the basis of a sound and enduring foundation.
Thus we now have large numbers of individuals working on
specific parts of interrelated issues that produce specific
outcomes. Rather than being overwhelmed by the immensity and
complexity of the larger problem, they are broken down into
manageable parts. Similar groups will form in every community.
They will talk to each other, teach each other, share results
and coordinate their efforts. The enormity and complexity of
issues can be overwhelming and paralyzing. One hardly knows
where to begin, so nothing gets down. The pitfall of enormity
can be avoided by delegating work and breaking everything down
into manageable portions. If there are enough people willing to
do the work they may need to be given a rough blue print and a
little guidance. There will necessarily be some false starts,
but together we will find our way.
Seemingly disparate but interrelated issues such as corporate
control, revolutionary unionism, militarism, public funding of
political campaigns, proportional representation in government,
sweatshops, civil rights, starvation and hunger, disease, safe
organically grown food, small family farming—a broad spectrum of
issues—are addressed in this way. Clearly, there is no shortage
of issues to select from. There is something for everyone. Find
something that interests you and get started.
By continuously attacking these individual issues on many
levels, we will be making steady progress on the broad front of
a massive social justice movement of global dimensions. Thus we
must reach out to the people working in other but related
movements, who are already working on their own issues and know
them best. In effect, we would be uniting the working poor with
labor unions at home and in Sri Lanka; democratizing and
liberating the work place through revolutionary unionism, taking
public ownership of the economy from the corporations and
redistributing wealth equitably to those who produce. We would
be cleaning our streams and rivers, even as we address global
warming. All things are related. Pluck a flower, trouble a star.
We would work in unison with the disempowered and voiceless
across every front, in every nation. Together we have a voice.
Separate we do not. Those working on civil rights issues would
be united with people working on labor issues, because those
issues are interconnected. Individual problems will not be fixed
in isolation from the whole. A particular problem can be
isolated temporarily for the purpose of making it a manageable
part, but it must be reassembled within the matrix of the
integrated whole if it is to work. For example, women chained to
work tables in Chinese sweatshops would be working with the
employees of Wal-Mart in the US and Germany to emancipate all
parties from wage slavery. The problem must be fixed globally;
otherwise, it migrates to regions where there are few
environmental regulations, or no protection for workers against
Creative and visionary ways must be found to bring groups of
people together in common causes that may appear to be
unrelated, but which are in fact interrelated. I will leave that
to minds more brilliant than my own, but I will participate.
Ours will be a movement that gives voice to the voiceless,
wherever they are, whatever they do. Uniting thousands of
smaller issues into a great river of revolutionary activism is
the only thing that will set us free. Many of these movements
already exist—we have only to join forces with them. It is a
monumental undertaking that will require relentless effort, self
sacrifice, and commitment to the larger common cause. Uniting
all of these disparate factions and moving them forward under a
social justice umbrella, pushing forward in unison against our
oppressors gives us enormous power that is virtually
unstoppable. It is a power that can remake civilization by
working toward the common good, by looking out for each other.
It requires a different way of thinking than the one we are
accustomed to. This way of thinking and doing stresses
cooperation over competition and exploitation.
The most important principle of the movement is also
logistically the most difficult to achieve—to unite and to focus
the disparate parts—to make them function as a single organism
in the cause of social justice. This means that we must work in
accord across party lines, race, sex, socioeconomic class,
political ideology, theology and geopolitical boundaries. We
will be creating a global Commonwealth that tolerates and
celebrates diversity. It will be based upon mutual respect and
concern for the welfare of others. The needs of the many
outweigh the wants of the few.
The rug weaver in India, the peasant farmer in Bangladesh, the
Jewish Monk living in the rocky deserts of Israel; the truck
driver moving across the plains of Montana, the anti-war
protester in the streets of Washington or London in the prelude
to war; the soldier in the sands of Iraq, as well as the
insurgent on the other side of the fight; the political
prisoners in the US such as Leonard Peltier, and his counterpart
in China—all share a commonality with enormous potential to
unite. Our rulers succeed by keeping us apart.
The wars that continually erupt across the planet and cause
misery and suffering to the poor and the disenfranchised; the
enormous gaps that exist between the classes; racism, sexism—the
concentration of wealth and power into the hands of the few must
be abolished. They will not be abolished by the system that
created them. We must believe that another world is possible. We
must believe it with all our heart and we must be willing to
work for it. It will be humankind’s most incredible journey. It
will be the most important and satisfying work we can do.
As we proceed along this diverse but united front toward a goal
of social justice and world peace, we must recognize that what
we are trying to accomplish is nothing less than a global
revolution of Democratic Socialism. The name is not important;
the substance of the dream is.
This requires a new paradigm—that of the Commonwealth, which is
really an old paradigm that has served humankind well for
thousands of years. From this moment forth let us not work for
private gain and individual wealth; let us work for the common
good of everyone, everywhere. Let us recognize that no one can
be free until everyone is free.
Let those with technical expertise now come forward to organize
global forums online so that we can share ideas, even as we set
out to change our respective communities. Let us not only begin
talking among ourselves; let us begin the work that we know must
be done—work that we can do ourselves beginning this very
moment. Let us come together for peace, whatever name we give to
it. Everything we do matters—the effect is cumulative.
This hope for remaking civilization in the image of the common
people, rather than the money changers, must rise, like a
Phoenix, out of the ashes of capitalism. That will be a glorious
day. Let us begin the Great Work.
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